Natasha Harper-Madison: Creating a more equitable city
“Greetings!” Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison’s phone voice message said, “I look forward to connecting with you.” Harper-Madison represents District 1, which includes Northeast, East Central and far East Austin. The Council member has been hard at work, sometimes even on weekends, to keep her connection with her constituents going in an unprecedented year.
This year the District 1 Council member juggled hard decisions about the Covid-19 pandemic, Project Connect and public transportation, displacement mitigation, affordability, housing, and the development of complete communities. The city budget, mental health for first responders, the process called reimagining public safety, and a new menstrual equity plan also kept her busy.
Harper-Madison and the other Council members were confronted with the Covid-19 pandemic early in the year. “We were moving 1,000 miles a minute already, and then instantly, all of those things took a back burner. We had to figure out how to very quickly pivot,” she said.
This was Harper-Madison’s second year working on the budget. “I had so many amendments on the Fiscal Year 2020-21 budget,” she said. Those amendments included $750,000 for park facilities, especially historically underfunded older East Austin facilities; $1.37 million for rapid retraining of low-income Austinites; $330,000 to expand child care in East Austin parks; $400,000 to support formerly incarcerated individuals; $100,000 to contract with a solutions architect to focus on equity and policing; $500,000 for four full-time epidemiologists; and the introduction of a police liability budget rider for police-related lawsuits to reduce liability risk at the Austin Police Department.
“We made an investment in public safety with our budget amendments,” she said.
She said the city budget “is one of the most important things we do as a Council,” and that having to work remotely with her team made it “significantly more complicated.”
Harper-Madison would like APD cadet classes to resume in 2021, but before introducing new uniformed officers to the force she said it’s critical that the community feels confident about the recruitment and training of the candidates.
“We’re also moving in the direction of having completed our audit and assessment of the training academy and we’ll have information about that also in the spring of ’21,” she added.
Mental health training for first responders is an important part of the conversation about reimagining public safety.
“The 2020 budget offered a lot in the way of support for EMS, but I still think we can do better,” she said. “My hope is that in 2021, we really dive into our commitment to offering the support to our first responders’ needs.”
This November, Austin voters gave the green light to the Project Connect transit plan. Harper-Madison, who sits on the Housing and Planning Committee and the Regional Affordability Committee, is proud of the city’s push toward equitable transit-oriented development. “We were able to do something unprecedented with $300 million worth of funds being allocated towards displacement mitigation and affordability and housing.”
“Transit oftentimes does mean gentrification; transit oftentimes does displace people,” she said. “And that’s a trend everywhere; it’s not unique to Austin and certainly not unique to Texas. But we are the first city in the nation to propose a dedicated fund so large.”
Harper-Madison’s office has also been working on the Menstrual Equity Initiative this year to provide free period products and educational material to those in need. The city will be rolling out a pilot as soon as funding can be identified.
Harper-Madison is particularly proud of the city’s declaration that racism is a public health emergency and the establishment of Juneteenth – June 19 – as an annual city holiday. Another achievement was a resolution relating to tenant selection policies and procedures for individuals with prior convictions or evictions. “The intention was just to remove barriers to housing that really entrenched cyclical poverty and disproportionately affect people with criminal history,” she said.
“One of the big ones we did this year was the Northeast Austin district plan,” she said. When complete, the project is expected to feature a mix of housing types, retail and office space, a transit center, and an innovation district. She said it will “spur economic development, limit sprawl and strain on city resources, and encourage healthy living.”
In 2021, Harper-Madison will continue to work on homelessness and public safety. “There was a lot of trust that was lost in handling issues around homelessness and public safety. We have to rebuild that trust,” she explained. She hopes that the community will understand that difficult choices have to be made in order to rebuild the system.
“I’m hopeful that we’ll have great success with the vaccine,” she added. “And I’m hopeful that we’ll have great success with people continuing to take the necessary precautions to slow the spread as we move into building that herd immunity.”
“I also hope that we, as a city, make a deeper commitment to making sure that communities that have been overlooked and that have been disproportionately impacted continue to receive additional services and additional information and resources,” she said.
When asked about her major wish for 2021, she said, “My one major wish for 2021 is to get everybody on the same page about the things that transcend political ideology: income level, religion, race, and recognizing that we have got to become a more equitable, accessible city to more people.”
This story was written by a journalism student at the University of Texas at Austin. The Austin Monitor is working in partnership with the UT School of Journalism to teach and publish stories produced by students in the City and County Government Reporting course.
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